The nineteenth step in Sabarimala

Raghuraj Rajendran

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] true believer in Advaita would consider the recent Sabarimala judgment neither a trophy, nor a catastrophe. The whole world being one has bigger ramifications. The entry, or ban, applicable at a particular location on earth is insignificant at this cosmic scale. The arguments here are at a more mundane level. It is disheartening to see the debate degenerate into a male versus female issue, or as one regarding the purity of women during menstruation. Once this happens, the reformists have to take a reformist stance, which they have been trained to. It becomes a debate on equality of women, sucking in people on either side without their knowledge.

I have not gone through scriptures regarding Sabarimala. My experience and exposure to this topic is as a young boy brought up in Kerala. Going to Sabarimala was not like going to any other temple. It was special. There were many traditions one had to follow. My father was rather agnostic about it, my mother very particular. There were a lot of things one had to practise which was out of the normal. Once one put on the mala after a prayer in the neighbouring temple, one was neither supposed to eat without taking a bath, nor eat outside. Some cooked their food separately even within a household. Men were not to shave their beards. Some even moved around without slippers and my grandma advised me against cutting my nails.

When we went to Sabarimala, my mother maintained a Keda vilakku at home (a lamp which would burn throughout). I was told that, in early years, the lamp going out was taken as an indication that the group on pilgrimage was not to return home! Our well being was tied to the sanctity with which the above-mentioned rituals were observed.

The rituals were detailed above to bring home the point that the restriction on menstruating women is not the only ‘tradition’ that is associated with Sabarimala. Growing up, I felt the entire process of going to Sabarimala was an exposure to a period of celibacy, penance and purity by abstinence from worldly pleasures for the common man (and woman). The black uniform, the mala and the irumudi were manifest aspects of that.

I overheard a discussion that suggested there is a prasnam (an oracle) which says that most visitors to Sabarimala are not keeping their celibacy for the mandated period of 41 days. One does get an impression that this is not amenable to ready verification. It is expected that the visitor taking an ardent journey to Sabarimala is there with a lot of devotion. This again is not an easily verifiable fact. It is not surprising that we have come to a stage where the restrictions verified are only the easily verifiable parts of the tradition the black dress and irumudi. As a personal benefactor, I can attest the tradition associated with the place is a part of the experience when one is there. If one is in the right frame of mind, it can be sublime!

Now, when the state comes in and gives express sanction to a break from this tradition, it certainly is felt by most as a violation of the experience. This violation is for the millions who are faithful to the arduous tasks of the pilgrimage. This includes the women who part take in the pilgrimage mentally. Sabarimala is not just any other hill for them. The altitude of the hill is not unique. But the tradition is. There are many other traditions which are valued by the people. The irumudi, black cloth, the mala, or the unshaven look may not stand judicial scrutiny of being a reasonable qualification to be a devotee. The question is if these should be subject to judicial scrutiny in the first place.

Now, to go into specifics, one argument is that the menstrual blood is also a form of secretion like sweat and should not be discriminated against. There is no gainsaying the importance of menstruation or menstrual blood or semen. That all of these are not treated as equivalent to sweat is, to my mind, obvious. Although in core advaitic thought, it may not make a difference, for all practical purposes, the same is distinguished by human beings. Semen and menstrual blood are associated with reproduction an aspect that one seeks to distance oneself in preparation to this pilgrimage. This is a part of the experience. As a practice, neither semen nor menstrual blood is verified. It is all in the mind of the devotee. But expressly providing for the same, using the monopoly on violence that state has is a different proposition. Women do visit the temple after a particular age. They can also go before their puberty. So it is not against a gender. It is only mentally moving away from reproduction and worldly matters.

I opened this piece with my impressions as a young boy. It is, perhaps, not relevant what exactly is mentioned in the scriptures and if the deity, itself, is reported to have wives there. It is about the perception. In this vein, it may not matter if menstruating women visit the temple or not. It is about if there is publicised state sanction in this regard. A tradition that does not discriminate against an individual citizen, but only discriminates against the worldly thought of reproduction and endless mixing up with worldly matters is certainly not anachronistic and not untouchable. There is a need to relook at the desirability of imposing ‘constitutional immorality’ on a nation of the size and variety as India, ravaging the faith of its people. The tantric details of the temple may not be relevant consideration for a court of law but the sanguine mental vibrations of ‘We, the People’ should be.

(Author is deputy director, LBSNAA, Mussoorie)